Saturday, February 23, 2008

New Years in Jama

Andrea had been talking about New Years since we arrived. It's a very big deal in Ecuador which translates directly into Big Party. The plan was for us to go to Jama a town about 20 minutes south of Tabuga and attend a party with a local family that Andrea has become close with. But of course, first we have to dress up for the occasion! While we didn't exactly put on our finest we did take it up a (small) notch from the dirty clothes we had been wearing and - as is expected in Latin America - made sure to have on plenty of makeup!

Assured by Andrea that we were appropriately dressed and that we would have a good time we got in the car and drove down to Jama. Our first stop was the home where Andrea spends most of her time when in Jama. Her good friend Juan Carlos lives there with his mother Isabel, his dad, his 22 year old brother and his 10 year old sister also named Isabel. Dinner with Juan Carlos' family was quite an adventure. We sat at a formal table with big plastic cups of Coke and ate some interesting things. Isabel made pork which was actually very tasty. She also makes the best plantains in Ecuador (or that we had at least) which Mom and Alex eagerly ate up. And of course there was rice! So at least I had something to eat ;)

After dinner it was time to go to the plaza in Jama where the New Years celebration was taking place. Walking through the streets of Jama was one of the weirdest experiences I have had - we were so on display! The people were openly staring at us while we walked with Juan Carlos' family. They loved it! Little Isabel decided instantly that she and I would be best friends and that she wanted to parade me around town since I was such a novelty. And parade me she did! I spent a good hour walking hand in hand with Isabel as she introduced me to everyone she knew (which was pretty much everyone since it's not a big city). Isabel also decided that she should be the photographer for the event so she also commandeered my camera. Note - all the New Years photos in Jama were taken by the lovely Isabel.

When we got to the plaza our group rented a table and plastic chairs that some men put out for us. And there we sat while drinking beer and watching the people arrive. Juan Carlos' family is well known in the community for a variety of reasons. He claims to have been a pro football player for a time (this is actually true) so everyone thinks they know him. Plus, his dad is extremely active in the religious community and Isabel senior is the local seamstress. Since everyone knew them we they would come over to say hello which involves at least a hug if not a kiss on the cheek. I don't know how may people I kissed on the cheek that night but it was a lot!

Another funny thing about Ecuador is how the women throw their daughters at Alex. All of the ladies were very excited to see him and to meet him. He, of course, provided the obligatory kiss on the cheek to each and every one of them! My favorite story of the night involves a beautiful girl that said she was interested in Alex. So at midnight we told Alex to go over to her and kiss her since it is the custom in Ecuador. Alex got up the nerve to walk across the plaza, tap her on the shoulder, wish her Happy New Years and then kiss her on the cheek. Too bad it was the wrong girl! That's right, he kissed the wrong girl and the "right" girl must have been unimpressed as she was only about 20 feet away. Hilarious.

Let me tell you about drinking in groups while in Ecuador. Again it was the Pilseners which we bought two at a time for our table of 8, over and over again. Two beers gets split among 8 people easily when you only have two glasses. Did I say glasses? I meant small plastic cups. The process is for whoever bought the beer to fill a cup with beer and pass it to the person next to them. When you get the cup it's your job to drink the beer - no sipping here, hurry up! - and give the empty glass back to the person so they can fill it for the next person. It's a little weird to get use to at first but pretty soon I was chugging plastic cups of beer with the best of them.

It was chugging all of those cups of beer that got me dancing in the middle of the plaza in front of hundreds of Ecuadorians all staring at the white girls dancing! Andrea and Juan Carlos party together all of the time and therefore, are great dancers together. They are funny with their dance moves, it almost looked like they were trying out for Dancing With the Stars! Dancing with Juan Carlos' friend was fun and showed me the steps, but it was terribly embarrassing and I still can't believe I did it. See the pictures, there's proof.

When midnight came it was time to burn the effigies. In Andrea's part of Ecuador the people make effigies of people that have had bad years or that need good luck in the coming year. They burn them at midnight to bring the good luck. However, when we talked about New Years with the Kings they said that they burned effigies of people they wanted to have BAD luck in Puyo. Interesting that there was such a difference. Isabel walked me around town some more then to make sure I saw all of the different burnings.

At around 1am we called it a night in Jama and headed back to Tabuga. Mom and I were ready for bed but Andrea asked us to drop her and Alex off in Tabuga proper to see if there were any parties still going on. There certainly must have been! Those two came crawling into bed at around 4am! But that's their story to tell.....

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Story Continues - Our First Trip to Tabuga

It's time for me to get this story finished. For all of you that keep asking what happened after arriving in Tabuga - now you'll know!

So we awoke in Tabuga on New Year's Eve ready to learn more about where Andrea lives and the people of Tabuga. We woke up pretty late after driving the whole day before and not getting in until after 1am. Alessandro and his family fixed us an amazing breakfast with fresh fruit, bread and Italian meats. I watched them pick a GIANT papaya right from the tree and then cut it up for us. It was awesome.

Alessandro's ranch is a great eco-tourism place. We had our own house complete with kitchen, dining room and two beds. The only not cool thing - tons of spiders. I mean tons of them. Andrea says they're wood spiders and that they wouldn't touch us but I was freaked. If I hadn't been so exhausted the night before I'm not sure I would have been able to sleep. But she was right, the spiders never bothered us.

The people and animals there are fantastic. Alessandro is helped by his girlfriend Cleopatra (Cleo) who is very progressive Ecuadorian woman. She hosts a radio show on Sunday mornings and is involved in the community. In addition, Alessandro's mother was visiting from Italy while we were there. She was a riot and spoke to us in rapid Italian that we (of course) didn't really understand. The farm also has a dog family that lives there and we played with the dogs quite a bit (look at the albums to see Blanco and Flea/Negrito playing with Toni and Ang). Like all dogs in Ecuador these dogs are filthy and aren't cared for in the traditional American sense. They're all matted and aren't allowed inside. One of the dogs is a little black puppy that was the cutest thing ever if you could look past his gooey eyes, crusty face and slight smell. The family appropriately called him Flea (but in spanish). We called him the Little Black One or Negrito. Too cute.

After fueling up for the day with some breakfast we hopped into the car to go to Tabuga and meet Andrea's "family". Tabuga is a beautiful village filled with some of the friendliest people I have ever met. It is an extremely poor area with a population of about 400 people. See Andrea's blog for a better description. The people where all excited about our arrival and many were waving to us from their windows or yard as we drove to Andrea's house.

When we got to Andrea's we met her parents, two teenage brothers and her younger brother Angel. Here is where we got our first taste of Ecuadorian manners and customs. Even though the house living room was completely empty minus a TV and some chairs, they pulled out the chairs and made us sit there while they stood around us and stared. Very funny. Andrea's mom gave us yogurt as it is custom to offer some sort of food or beverage when a guest comes over.

Andrea had asked Mom to bring gifts down for everyone in her family so we got to see her mom receive plastic oven mitts - she thought they were hilarious! Angel got a cool Tonka truck and he liked it so much he didn't want to take it out of the package. Really cute.

We also got to see Andrea's room for the first time. It's funny how much it resembles a typical American dorm room. Andrea has lots of decorations and has used every inch of her room to maximize space. She even has a hammock that she pulls down and when she sits in it she sort of hovers over her kitchen table. Look for a shot of her in the photo albums. It was really nice to see just where she lives and that her place is safe. Plus her family is extremely nice and they take care of her.

The family has a really nice house by Tabuga standards. We only saw the first floor (I assume the bedrooms were upstairs) but their kitchen is large and set up with (fairly) modern cooking equipment. They also have a "real" toilet in an outhouse-like bathroom. In fact, they just rebuilt their bathroom prior to our arrival and it is now concrete and not wood - fancy! In the backyard the family has a large birdcage with a bird of prey in it. So cool to see up close (again look at the photo albums). Andrea did say that the bird is endangered in Ecuador though and so the family isn't really suppose to have it. I hope I haven't blown their cover by posting it here ;)

We brought a few Frisbees down to Ecuador so Alex decided to teach the children of Tabuga his favorite sport. Alex, Angel and another local boy played for a while. The other boy, Richard, was a natural. Angel, not so much. There was plenty of chasing the Frisbee around as it was thrown into bushes, gardens and rock piles. It was adorable to watch though and the kids loved Alex - I guess I should say they love Alex since he is still there!

After playing in Tabuga and meeting people it was time to head back to Alessandro's for some rest and to get ready for New Year's. We wasted our afternoon away lazily swinging in hammocks and reading. Does it get better than that?

After a great Italian late lunch of shrimp and pasta we started getting ready for our trip to Jama for New Year's Eve. We had a Crosby Family Photo Shoot thanks to Alessandro and Cleo (they liked seeing us "dressed up") and then jumped into the car for the 20 minute drive to Jama.

Wanna know what we did on New Year's? - You'll have to wait for the next post. That adventure deserves it's own entry!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

“In This Lounge Are the World’s Finest Peace Corps Volunteers”

That’s what the sign says in the Peace Corps Lounge in Quito. Now we didn’t get to meet each every
one of the volunteers, but I can say without any bias that the sign is true when it comes to Omnibus 97. The volunteers that we met while in Ecuador truly are amazing people. Their kindness, generosity and willingness to be part of a greater good are all attributes the rest of us only aspire to – these guys live and breathe it daily.

Thank you to the Kings, the “other” Susan, Jason, Katie and of course, Jeff. Our trip wouldn’t have been the same without you all there!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Jungle Boogie

Warning - I stopped taking detailed notes each day so from now on, it's up to my memory to provide the details. They'll be sketchy at best!

After Monkey Palace it was time to drop our new brother A-Jeff off in Tena and head to Puyo for some Jungle Adventures. We had been warned by A-Jeff that the road to Puyo was terrible. Susan and Jeremy (Volunteers that live in Puyo) had told him that it was the worst part of the drive to their site. They did NOT exaggerate! Toni was literally off-roading where the roads were washed out and the landslides had covered entire roads. There's no real way to describe the conditions - you wouldn't believe it.

We drove into Puyo on the hunt for El Jardin, a hostel that Jeremy and Susan recommended. Just past the city limits we find it - it's paradise! Literally it is paradise tucked away into the corner of the city. We crossed a foot bridge over a (beautiful yet dirty) river and into an amazing garden surrounded by two stories of lodging that looked like it came right out of the Garden of Eden. Even more amazing? We had our own beds! And HOT showers and the internet. El Jardin certainly lives up to its name and has beautiful flowers everywhere. Add the 3 resident parrots and it doesn't get much better.

El Jardin is also an amazing restaurant so Andrea called Susan and Jeremy and asked them to come join us for dinner. They came over a little while later with another volunteer also named Susan. We had a blast! I know I've mentioned Toni's blog-stalking but here is where it becomes even more obvious. She had a present for Susan! Since Susan has a list of books she wants to read Toni headed right over to Boarders to buy a book of the list. So funny! Susan, Jeremy and Susan are so nice. We had an excellent meal and then all settled into the hostel's "TV Hut" where we were joined by yet another volunteer (don't these guys work?) Katie and sat down to watch "Super Bad". Many Pilseners later, we were off to bed ready to join up with the King Family (Susan and Jeremy), the other Susan for some birding in the morning.

After an amazing breakfast we met up with the Volunteers and a man named Chris Canady who is an Ex-Pat now living in Puyo. Chris is the director of an Ecobotanical reserve called Omaere adjacent to the hostel. When I get back to the states and have all of my information I'll be sure to post the reserve website and information as the place is amazing. The Kings had been birding with Chris before so they knew he was the right man to show Toni all of the birds she had been waiting to see while here in Ecuador. Sadly the birds weren't cooperating that day as it was threatening to rain. So while we didn't see very many birds we did have a fantastic time walking through the jungle.

Chris is extremely knowledgeable on the plants within the jungle and even had us all eagerly eating a plant stalk of sorts that's suppose to be good for your kidneys and digestion. He just cut the stalk right off and started slicing bite-size pieces off for us. It was bitter at first but quite thirst-quenching and was a welcome treat when walking through the jungle. The week prior to our arrival there had been some serious flooding at the reserve so the trail that we were taken was one that nobody had been on in quite some time. There were some interesting moments - like when Alex was leading the way and then "lost" the trail since there was none! Or, when suddenly there were wasps everywhere and Chris says "I think we may have disturbed a hive" and Andrea yells to Toni "Run Mom. I mean it!" Toni and I literally started running through the jungle. So funny and weird!

After our jungle time we left the reserve and went into the city so that Toni could go to the Waorani store that Toni had read about in "Savages" and that Susan is working with the tribal community on. Bad news - it was closed! Susan was not impressed as she has been trying to explain to the tribe that being open on Saturdays is a good thing and that tourists come on the weekend. Oh well, their loss! Instead we had some lunch and then went back to El Jardin for some rest and relaxation with a promise to meet up with the Kings and Susan at La Casa de Kings for our introduction into Speed Scrabble. Speed Scrabble is coming to Concord - look out because Toni is a natural! We had some beverages and played a few rounds of Speed Scrabble. The Kings live in a great apartment and have most of the amenities of home. It's funny - Andrea's room in Tabuga would literally fit into their living room twice, possible three times. The difference between sites is incredible. Plus, Andrea lives in an extremely poor section of the world.

After drinks and scrabble it was off to El Jardin for the night and some much needed sleep.

Wake up Ang - it's your birthday! And you are officially old. I start my day off with some blogging (see previous post) and then the Crosby Clans packed up to meet the Kings and Susan in an effort to see if the Waorani store is open. I'm thinking there's no way since it's a Sunday morning and they didn't open on Saturday. Sure enough, closed! Susan was very unimpressed now as it was the second day in a row. However, she "gifted" be a beautiful Waorani bracelet for my birthday and meeting up gave Andrea and Jeremy some time to go over some Environmental Education booklets that he had and Andrea is borrowing.

Wait a minute.....did someone just see a Waorani woman walk down the street? Susan pounced on her and asked if the store was opening. The answer? The always present Ya Mismo! If I haven't mentioned it yet here's a good time to explain this phrase and way of life here. One of the volunteers (I apologize for not remembering who) explained it very well by saying it's just like the American phrase ASAP but without the P. So, if someone says Ya Mismo to you know that they'll do what you're asking them to do just on their own timeline. Armed now with the knowledge that a woman was coming to open the store we waited curbside.

When the woman arrived we spent the next 20 minutes or so going through all of the amazing crafts and weapons that they had on display. Susan's work with the women within the tribe has helped to organize these amazing artists so that they get proceeds based on the crafts they sell. Thanks to Toni the women all get quite a nice windfall this month!

With our purchases made we bid our Puyo guides farewell and started the journey to Baños where we planned to have a great meal and meet up with a tattoo artist. Baños is an extremely touristy town with lots of gringos. It was almost overwhelming. After a fantastic lunch we headed down the street to the artist's shop. He was in and Toni, Andrea and I were ready for our crescent moon tattoos (Please see the Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley) that we have been planning for years. The problem? It was already almost 3pm as we got a late start in the morning due to our shopping and we still had an 8 hour drive to Tabuga to complete. So we decided against the tattoos. Sad, now that it's the end of our trip (I am writing this part of the blog only 4 hours before leaving Ecuador) and we didn't get the ink but a good decision in the end because our 8 hour drive ended up being almost 11.

The drive was the worst experience ever. It started with us driving in the clouds at night down 10,000 feet in just 2 hours. In order to get that low, that fast, the roads are crazy with twists and the drivers are even crazier. I don't even like writing about it because it was so terrible. The buses fly past cars and trucks while driving around BLIND turns. It is not okay and several times we came very close to being hit head-on as buses came driving at us in both lanes. From the mountains it only got worse as the road from El Carmen to Perdenales (the biggest city near Andrea) is so ridden with pot holes that you have to drive on both sides of the road weaving in out of potholes that would bottom-out any car. It was awful. Truly miserable. Thank god Mom is a quick study and she got very good at driving on all sides of the road, in the middle of the night AND in the middle of nowhere. Nice work Mom!

We finally arrived at La Pepperoconi at almost 2am. What a crazy birthday!